In Corbett country

Print edition : May 04, 2007
A walk along Jim Corbett Trail, one of the finest ecotourism trails in the Lower Himalayas.

A CURTAIN of darkness had already descended over Tanakpur town on the banks of the Sharada river, in eastern Uttarakhand, when we planned our trip to Chuka village, near the confluence of the Sharada and Ladhiya rivers, in December 2005. Our primary goal was to meet Ummed Singh. As a 10-year-old boy he had seen Jim Corbett shoot the Chuka and Thak man-eating tigers, in April 1937 and November 1938 respectively. We also wanted to gather information on the status of the habitat of the golden mahseer (Tor putitora) in the Ladhiya and the lower reaches of the Sharada. Paramjit Singh, Conservator of Forests, Uttarakhand, suggested that we walk down from Manch (6,000 feet or 1,800 metres), which is close to the area where Corbett shot the Talla Des (lower country) man-eater in April 1929.

Anyone who plans a visit to these areas should read Corbett's writings on the Talla Des, Chuka and Thak man-eaters. This would give one an idea of the terrain (which has not changed much), and the wildlife (which has declined drastically over the decades) that the area could support. During Corbett's time, the ranges of the man-eaters he shot were a part of a much larger landscape that stretched along the Himalayan foothills and supported large populations of various species. The Talla Des man-eater, which roamed for eight years and killed 150 people, had two grown-up cubs when Corbett hunted it down. Sambar (a large deer), serow and goral (two types of goat-antelope) were common in Talla Des. When Corbett waited up a tree for the Chuka man-eater in the Ladhiya valley, he saw the tigress with its two small cubs. There were signs of black bear and leopard in Ladhiya valley. Sambar, barking deer and even king cobra were common around Chuka and Thak villages. In April 1937, the Ladhiya-Sharada confluence was so alive with golden mahseer that Corbett and Ibottson could catch enough fish to feed the camp of 30 people. Around Kaladhunga forest bungalow on the bank of the Sharada, where Corbett stayed when he was on the trail of the Chuka and Talla Des man-eaters, there was no human habitation as far as the eye could see. Sambar and chital were seen feeding, morning and evening, in the abandoned fields in front of the bungalow, and tiger calls were frequently heard. Now tigers are seldom reported in this part of Corbett country, and even mahseer and sambar have become exceedingly rare.

The Ladhiya river, which flows along a broad valley in Champawat district.

The major reason for the decline in wildlife is the rise of the human population in India and Nepal, both in the hills and in the foothills. The conquest of malaria enabled people to clear vast stretches of forest in the terai (alluvial soil, high water table and tall grass) and bhabar (characterised by boulders and a low water table) tracts for agriculture and settlements. The tiger-sambar habitat around Chuka and Thak is still part of a larger tiger habitat (Terai East, Haldwani and Champawat forest divisions are about 1,800 square kilometres). However, the tiger habitat has been isolated by unabated boulder-mining between the Terai East and central forest divisions along the Gola river and developments such as the Sharada canal and encroachments between the Terai East and Pilibhit forest divisions (the latter is now in Uttar Pradesh) and is subject to rampant poaching.

The population in Thak village is now reduced to one Rajput family. The rest, all Brahmins, have settled in and around Selagarh and serve as priests in the Purnagiri temple. The populations in Kot Kendri, Chuka and Sem villages remain almost the same as they were in Corbett's time, possibly because these villages are still not connected by road. In contrast, the Nepali population on the left bank of the Sharada has grown significantly in villages such as Pari-gaon (a large village opposite Kaladhunga, in existence for nearly four decades), Sandani and Thathapani. Until five years ago, poachers from Nepal used to enter India by crossing the Sharada using inflated truck tubes - the few forest guards posted on the Indian side were no match for them. When Corbett and his men took the steepest and the most exhausting climb on the southern face of the Talla Des ridge in April 1929, they halted for the night at the only little hamlet in the area, a thousand feet from the crest. Today the southern face, always more exposed to sun and therefore much warmer than the densely wooded northern face, is dotted with numerous settlements. Even the north-facing slope, on which Thak and Kot Kendri villages are situated, has several more human habitations than in Corbett's time.

Tigers are seldom reported in this part of Corbett country these days. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

We reached the Manch forest bungalow (built in 1942-43) close to midnight. It was bitterly cold, but a warm meal near the fireplace and sound sleep in the warmth of our sleeping bags enabled us to overcome the weariness caused by the 14-hour drive from Dehra Dun. The staff who were to accompany us the next day told us that the 22-km, almost vertical descent to Chuka (390m) would be long and over rough terrain. We prepared to leave as early as possible.

The morning was bright but a bit hazy. Since we had the entire day before us, we walked at a leisurely pace, identifying birds and vegetation. Every step had to be placed carefully as the path, steep in most places, was strewn with boulders and littered with small scree stones, which slid and rolled underfoot. It appeared that there would be no opportunity to see large mammals as the habitat all around us was overused by people. A group of langur watched us as we entered the oak forest where we were rewarded with the sighting of a blue-winged minla, a bird common in the forests of the Eastern Himalayas and usually not seen west of Kumaon. The forest had numerous kaphal (Myrica esculenta) trees that produce a small, red and very sweet berry greatly fancied by both humans and black bear. Soon we entered oak-pine forest, and at one point our walk went through oak-pine-sal, which excited Ravikiran, a young and enthusiastic forest officer and a very knowledgeable botanist from Maha 147,3,1rashtra. There were a few chiuri trees (Diploknema, or Madhuca, butyracea), a species confined to Kumaon and Nepal, which are valued for the butter that can be extracted from the seeds. The golden yellow flowers of Inula cappa interspersed with a few pale blue flowers of the Gerbera species covered the ground. We walked past a village where young wheat crop sprouting uniformly in the fields gave the impression of manicured lawns. A large group of rhesus macaque, a species of monkey that causes enormous problems in North India, was rummaging through the fields, and in the nearby forest a group of langur fed in the trees. Steppe eagles and Himalayan griffons soared in the sky.

UMMED SINGH, WHO saw Corbett shoot the man-eating tigers of Chuka, in April 1937, and Thak, in November 1938.

Around midday we neared the dense growth of mixed dry deciduous vegetation on the steep slopes leading to the Ladhiya. We saw sambar tracks for the first time. We also encountered a large mixed flock of birds with many interesting species, the most striking being the white-bellied yuhina, an East Himalayan bird with only scattered records of sightings from Kumaon. At one point, we could see both the Ladhiya and Sharada rivers. The Ladhiya meanders along a broad, flat valley; it seems to change course almost every year. The mighty Sharada is confined to a gorge. We had to wade through the icy waters of the Ladhiya three times. In the forests where Corbett may have observed the man-eating tigress with two cubs, we saw a large group of rhesus macaques screaming and fighting among themselves. At the final crossing near the Ladhiya-Sharada confluence, where ruddy shelducks, common mergansers and great cormorants were feeding, the staff from Chuka were waiting for us. They carried our bags to the one-room chowkie, provided us warm water for a much-needed bath, and cooked us a spartan but delicious meal. A hurricane lantern gave us company until we crawled into our sleeping bags.

Chuka, situated between dense forest and the Sharada, stood shrouded in mist when we emerged from the 147,4,0 chowkie. Sitting in the warmth of the sun to eat breakfast, we could see and hear numerous bird species: snowy-browed flycatchers, yellow-bellied fantail flycatchers, red-billed blue magpies and white-crested laughing thrushes. The intermittent laughter of the last punctuated the roar of the mighty Sharada. Our plan for the day was to visit Kumen Chak (about 570m, 3 km from Chuka) to meet Ummed Singh, then walk to Kot Kendri (about 900m, 4 km from Kumen Chak) and return to Chuka via Thak (about 750m, 5 km from Kot Kendri).

A Kumaoni woman winnowing wheat

Our walk took us along the north-facing slopes, where the forest cover was dense, and it was cool. There were many thickly wooded, deep nullahs with tree species such as Macaranga peltata, Bischofia javanica, Phoebe lanceolata and Castanopsis tribuloides, which are more common in East Himalaya. Even common plants like Strobilanthus atropurpureus and Flemingia strobilifera looked beautiful amidst the lush vegetation. We saw one flowering plant of Pteracanthus angustifrons. Bird life was extremely rich, including a large flock of Nepal fulvetta. This was perhaps the first recorded sighting of the bird in Uttarakhand, which extends the birds' distributional range further west. During our brief discussion, Ummed Singh said that he frequently heard sambar alarm calls around Kumen Chak. He also spoke of how the serow was threatened by extensive hunting all over its range in India.

On the pine (Pinus roxburghiana) ridge between Kot Kendri and Thak there were many goral pellet groups. Sambar tracks were more common closer to Thak. In many places wild pigs had rooted for food, dislodging 20-30 kg boulders. We could not walk through the abandoned Thak village and drink from the famed spring, which arises from the roots of a large mango tree (the Thak man-eater and Corbett had drunk from this spring), as the entire area was overgrown with dense vegetation that obliterated the path. We wondered whether it would be possible to request the only family in Thak to move down to Chuka, where there is sufficient land for a homestead. If this were to happen, it would be possible to have a 100 sq km area free of human habitation between the Purnagiri temple and Chuka - a safe home for serow, sambar and a few tigers.

Piptadenia oudhensis, which grows only in eastern Kumaon and the west-central foothills in Nepal.

The last few hundred metres of our descent to Chuka from Thak were in gathering darkness. The staff showed us a large boulder on which Corbett was supposed to have perched precariously, called and shot the Thak man-eater. But seven decades are too long for the rock and its immediate surroundings to fit Corbett's description.

Our destination for the next day was Kaladhunga (about 360m), some 8 km from Chuka. We left around midday, having seen the large Bel (Aegle marmelos) tree near which Corbett pitched his tent while hunting the Chuka man-eater. The trail to Kaladhunga goes along at the base of a long hill with the Sharada river below; this tract, with boulders and perhaps a high water table, supports some mag 147,5, 1nificent sal trees. As we neared Kaladhunga, we noted with trepidation the growth of Pari-gaon village on the Nepalese side. Several people were fishing in the river where we saw only a few very small fish jumping in and out of the water. The Kaladhunga forest bungalow was occupied by Special Security Bureau (SSB) forces (they have pla ns to keep a permanent post here), but they had set aside a room for our use. Their presence meant that the area was spotless, and we had company as well as a sense of security.

Our next day's walk to Thuligad (about 330m) was about 14 km long and ran parallel to the Sharada. There were numerous large deep pools, but we did not see a single fish jump. The personnel at the Srikund SSB camp kindly provided us tea and narrated sightings of animals such as the leopard, the barking deer and the sambar.

The golden yellow flowers of the lnula cappa

Ummed Singh had earlier vouched that the presence of the SSB at Kaladhunga and Srikund and their patrolling along the border had put an end to poaching from the Nepal side. Only uncontrolled fishing in the Sharada continues. But it would be interesting to explore whether there is any patch of forest that remains uninhabited/little used on the Nepal side along which large mammals can move between India and Nepal. The last 6 km of our walk beyond Srikund went along the Sharada gorge. The hills on the Indian side are prone to extensive landslides and in at least a dozen places the extremely narrow trail, which offered only a foothold, was precarious: on the right were steep and fragile hills and on the left was an almost vertical drop of 20-40 metres to large rocks and the ice-cold waters of the Sharada. Interestingly, the scats and tracks we saw showed that leopards used the Srikund-Thuligad trail intensively. The prey species they are likely to find along this trail are porcupine, langur and goral. On this stretch, we photographed Piptadenia oudhensis, a tree species found only in eastern Kumaon and the west-central Nepal foothills.

The last lap of our journey from Thuligad to Boom was by jeep. We stopped briefly at the Sharada View Point and took pictures in the gorgeous late-afternoon light. Later in the evening, sitting on the banks of the Sharada behind the Boom forest bungalow and basking in the golden light of the setting sun, we watched small fish leap in the water.

The pale blue flower of the Gerbera species.

The route we took from Champawat (1,500m) via Manch to Boom is one of the finest ecotourism trails in the Lower Himalayas. Jim Corbett glorifies this trail in the epilogue that he wrote for the Talla Des man-eater. The best time for a walk is end-March to early April when the rhododendron and other flowering plants are in bloom, deciduous trees put forth new leaves of different colours, and birds begin their mating songs. If you go on this trail, you should spend two days in the district headquarters of Champawat, a town set amidst rolling hills and sylvan settings. You can visit the deep Gaida gorge, close to which the Champawat man-eater was shot. In the evenings, the settings near the gorge are so serene that you may be lulled into the romantic notion that the man-eater could appear at any time. Soon after breakfast at Champawat, drive to Manch through rhododendron-oak-pine-deodar forests, and before settling down for the evening, visit the place where the Talla Des man-eater was shot (Talla Kot according to Corbett, and Boyal according to the local people). However, you will be saddened to see that there is no habitat left either for the sambar or the serow. Request your driver to meet you at Thuligad after five days, and go on the same trail that we described.

You may not see large mammals, but you will be able to list lots of fascinating birds. You may not catch a mahseer, but you will meet cheerful, friendly and hardy people living in the lap of nature. You will emerge out of the jungle sore in the limbs, but with great admiration for Jim Corbett, who, at the age of 63, was hard on the heels of the man-eater for nearly three weeks. Without much rest or the sleep his body yearned for, he climbed the steep path to Thak several times and eventually called and shot the man-eater at point-blank range.

Serow, a type of goat-antelope, which was once very common. Ummed Singh says he sees it occasionally now around his home in Kumen Chak.

Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh, is Eminent Wildlife Biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and Honorary Wildlife Adviser, World Wide Fund for Nature - India. Dhananjai Mohan (IFS) is Professor, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun.

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